The Political Lessons We Learn From Serbia

06/25/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

America is suffering from a paucity of leadership. Our politicians won't adequately address out-of-control entitlements, crumbling infrastructure, broken immigration laws and the world's highest incarceration rate. And the 2016 presidential campaign offers scant discussions of these fixable problems. Instead, Democrats squabble over who will expand benefits fastest and furthest, make unionization easier, keep lawyers employed and load more rules on businesses. Republicans claim they want to slash the federal deficit, but give few examples of cost-cutting -- vying to see who can veer furthest right, often at the expense of our individual lifestyle choices.

As U.S. politicians fumble over forward progress, viable models for political leadership abound beyond our borders. Consider Serbia, a war-torn country of 7.2 million people racked by a broken economy and soaring unemployment and inflation. Just last year, the World Bank ranked the former Yugoslavia territory -- landlocked in southeastern Europe -- 91st among countries surveyed on its annual ease of "Doing Business" assessment.

That was the state of affairs inherited by the Gen X politician who became Serbia's newest prime minister. Yet in less than 14 months' time, he has made tough choices, reversed a record deficit of 7 percent GDP of the economy to near-breakeven, and achieved economic growth.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, 45, took office in April of last year. Despite flooding that affected the country after his inauguration, he quickly worked with the parliament to institute economic reforms, including cutting pensions and public-employee wages and raising taxes. He pushed through laws allowing a flexible workplace and focused on attracting foreign investment.

His actions quickly paid off, and the results have been stellar. The country's GDP is forecast to grow next year, despite initial forecasts that the economy would tank. And Vucic has sliced Serbia's deficit to almost zero.

Serbia is currently in negotiations to join the European Union, and in early June met in Washington with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. At a recent Washington, D.C. lunch sponsored by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), Vucic said Rice assured him the U.S. supports his nation's EU accession.

While in Washington, Vucic also visited Microsoft's office to discuss ways to improve public and government services for his Balkan nation's citizens and businesses by introducing modern information-technology concepts and solutions.

I met Vucic at the ITIC lunch and asked him how he has achieved so much in such a short period of time. He said Serbians knew that things had to change; namely, that doing things the same way would not help create jobs, cut the deficit or propel the economy. So, he decided to take quick action upon winning the election, building on ideas he had presented while campaigning. Vucic said he has not concerned himself with re-election -- a novel idea for U.S. politicians caught in the never-ending campaign-funding cycle.

Vucic resisted claims from special interest groups asking for exceptions to his economic plan. Supplicants left his office surprised, because he treated the government treasury frugally, "as if it were his own," and not merely taxpayer money.

I couldn't help but think this is the exact opposite of how U.S. politicians behave. They have no problem spending taxpayer money without restraint and incurring obligations for future generations. Or they refuse to acknowledge problems altogether. And just about every special interest group who meets a politician seeking a handout leaves the meeting convinced the politician said "yes."

With our bridges collapsing, our jails and prisons full, and our benefits programs incapable of being restrained, we desperately hunger for genuine leaders who can say "no" for the greater good and provide real leadership.

America's success is not divine destiny -- it grew from a rare blend of honesty, hard work and innovative problem-solving embraced by our nation's founders. Since we can't seem to find any more Alexander Hamiltons in America, we should look to modern politicians like Aleksandar Vucic -- leaders who understand that honesty and shared sacrifice can earn the support of a willing public.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro